Reining in Israel

Print edition : March 09, 2012

The real challenge is to prevent Israel from embarking on a misadventure against Iran so that diplomacy gets a chance.

IN a typical Israeli knee-jerk reaction, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instantly blamed Iran for the bombing of an Israeli embassy staffer's car in Delhi. This is rich coming from a leader whose secret agency the Mossad is notorious for ruthlessness and lack of scruple, and is widely suspected to have been responsible for killing four scientists related to Iran's nuclear programme and a brigadier connected to its missile programme, in the past two years.

The former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, says a largely sympathetic New York Times magazine story (January 25), has praised the hits against Iranian scientists saying that beyond the removal of important brains' from the project, the killings have brought about what is referred to in the Mossad as white defection frightening other scientists into requesting that they be transferred to civilian projects.

These tactics are clearly part of a five-front strategy which, the story says, Dagan detailed in secret meetings with United States officials in 2004-07, involving political pressure, covert measures, counter-proliferation, sanctions and regime change all being pursued simultaneously. A debate is raging in Israel on what will best stop Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state: tougher sanctions, sabotage, ethnic disaffection, or military action.

The Mossad is also believed to have infiltrated the lethal Stuxnet virus into computers at Iran's nuclear installations and supplied defective components to them through third parties to retard uranium enrichment activities. The virus destroyed several centrifuges. Israel has reportedly recruited Iranians travelling abroad as agents and financed and armed Muhjahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) designated a terrorist organisation by the U.S. State Department Jundallah, and the Kurdish minority.

All this should have caused grave international concern, even outrage. It has not because the International Atomic Energy Agency has legitimised the view that Iran is in serious breach of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and its agreements with the IAEA. Many Western analysts believe that Iran has made a decision to acquire a nuclear weapons capability and may only be months away from doing so.

IAEA REPORT

The agency's latest report (November 8), hailed in many Western newspapers as a game-changer, based on a trove of new evidence, concludes that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device, and that they may still be continuing. This was seen by many Western governments as reason enough to toughen sanctions against Iran and wink at Israel's cloak-and-dagger tactics.

However, a careful analysis of the report shows that while there is evidence that Iran carried out clandestine activities in the past to develop a nuclear weapons capability, there is no credible evidence that it is continuing with them and that it is in breach of its obligations. Nor has Iran come anywhere near amassing enough weapon-grade uranium needed for a single atomic bomb. It is probably two years away from doing so.

The 25-page report consists of an 11-page main body and a 14-page annex on Possible Military Dimensions to Iran's Nuclear Programme. Most of the evidence cited to highlight the imminent danger of Iran crossing the threshold what Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak calls the zone of immunity beyond which its capacity to acquire nuclear weapons would become immune to military attacks comes from the annex and uses questionable sources.

The past evidence came to light in 2004 after a laptop computer was spirited out of Iran to U.S. agencies. Its provenance is attributed to an MEK and the Mossad and its authenticity questioned. At any rate, the material pertained to 1998-2003. A U.S. national intelligence estimate concluded in November 2007 that Iran stopped these activities in 2003. The allegation that Iran has resumed them has not been established through independent corroboration. It remains just an allegation.

More important, there is no evidence that Iran ever crossed the legal red line specified in the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements it signed with the IAEA diverting materials from a civilian to a military nuclear programme. Iran has placed the most important component of its nuclear programme, namely uranium enrichment at two facilities, besides a reactor it is building with Russian assistance at Bushehr, under IAEA inspections. It has substantially complied with the agency's demands for information.

Yet, while Iran did try in the past to explore or develop the ability to turn enriched uranium into weapons, it is not credibly established that it is continuing with such efforts. Even hawkishly anti-Iranian analysts, such as those with the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), believe that there are no indications that Iran has made a decision to actually construct a nuclear weapon.

Iran compliant

The main report confirms that Iran has been compliant with its obligations. Iran has declared to the agency 15 nuclear facilities and nine locations outside facilities where nuclear material is customarily used. The IAEA has found no evidence that Iran has hidden any facilities from it. The report repeatedly states that all nuclear material there remains under the agency's containment and surveillance and the agency has concluded that the facility has operated as declared by Iran in the Design Information Questionnaire sent to it.

As regards the two most important installations that can potentially produce fuel for nuclear bombs, the fuel enrichment plant and the pilot fuel enrichment plant, both at Natanz, south of Teheran, the report lists their capacities and operational histories although this information is confidential.

The annex is based primarily on some 1,000 pages of information shared with the IAEA by U.S. intelligence in 2005, contained in the laptop computer mentioned above, on which the agency relies despite its extremely dubious nature. This is supplemented with data from more than 10 member-states, and what the IAEA says are its own investigations. As is bound to be the case with classified intelligence, this is not fully documented or supported by references, names, dates, and so on. Nor is there a satisfactory explanation as to why the IAEA took six years to analyse the data.

The annex says: The information [cited] is assessed to be, overall, credible. But we only have the agency's word for this. The IAEA concludes that Iran in the past made efforts, some successful, to procure nuclear-related and dual-use equipment and materials by military related individuals and entities; to develop undeclared pathways for the production of nuclear material, acquired nuclear weapons development information from a clandestine nuclear supply network; and worked on the development of an indigenous design of a nuclear weapon.

These efforts were halted in 2003, but the IAEA says that some of them may have been resumed. While some of the activities have civilian as well as military applications, others are specific to nuclear weapons. There are also indications that some activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device continued after 2003, and that some may still be ongoing.

However, there is no independent corroboration of this. There are serious doubts about the authenticity and credibility of the evidence. For instance, the annex makes much of Iran's experiments with exploding bridge-wire detonators (EBWs) and says it recognises that there exist non-nuclear applications, albeit few for these. But Robert Kelley, a U.S. nuclear engineer and former IAEA inspector, says: The agency is wrong. There are lots of applications for EBWs.

Most of Iran's centrifuges are configured to produce 3.5 per cent enriched uranium, which is only fit for use in civilian power generation. (Weapons-grade uranium is 90-per cent enriched.)

Some centrifuges also produce smaller quantities of uranium enriched to 19.75 per cent, to feed the small Teheran Research Reactor. This too is considered Low Enriched Uranium by the IAEA, as distinct from weapons-grade uranium.

Iran has primarily deployed centrifuges of the IR-1 type, believed to be based on a crude first-generation P-1 design developed by the A.Q. Khan Laboratories in Pakistan. It has also deployed a small number of somewhat more advanced IR-2m and IR-4 machines. However, the performance of the IR-1 centrifuges is not stable and reliable and has declined recently, according to the ISIS.

The IR-2m and IR-4 centrifuges are based on Khan's P-2 design, which is less prone to breakdowns. But the original uses maraging steel, which is impossible to procure. So Iran has tried to substitute it with carbon fibre. But, says an ISIS report, building a reliable carbon fibre bellows may pose technical challenges that increase the risk of centrifuge failure. Iran's carbon fibre is of poor quality.

Seymour Hersh, the investigative journalist, wrote in The New Yorker in June quoting former IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei as saying: During my time at the agency we haven't seen a shred of evidence that Iran has been weaponising, in terms of building nuclear-weapons facilities and using enriched materials.

Amenable to diplomacy

Iran still remains amenable to diplomacy. This must be explored. Israel would be singularly ill-advised to strike Iran's nuclear facilities. It can best damage, not destroy, them while risking serious counter-strikes. Besides strong militias such as the Hizbollah, Iran has missiles with a range of 2,200 kilometres, which can reach U.S. bases and Israel. This would ignite a huge conflagration.

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